On Distant Shores – Episode 46

Margaret watched Henry rise from his chair by the fire and pace their drawing-room with restless, anxious energy. He’d been home from China for a week now, and he had not settled to anything. Neither had he shared with her anything about his journey, save that the Charlotte had been lost at sea and he’d been rescued by a Chinese official.

“Henry,” she said quietly, laying aside her own embroidery. She’d never been very good at it, in any case, and her roses looked rather lopsided. “Please tell me what is troubling you, for I know it is something. You have looked haunted since returning.” She used the word self-consciously, for it implied a melodrama Margaret had never liked. Yet it was true, Henry had looked haunted. Tormented, even, and by what? She could not begin to fathom it.

He came to a stop by the long sashed window that overlooked Boston’s Back Bay.

“It is better,” he said after a moment, “if you do not know.”

Margaret’s insides gave an unpleasant lurch.

“That sounds rather alarming,” she said as lightly as she could. “Surely it is not as bad as all that?”

“It is worse.”

“Henry –”

He shook his head.

“I find myself in an uncommon dilemma. Condemned on one side, damned on the other.” He turned to her with a sad, wry smile. “Forgive my language, my dear.”

“Do not think of such things now, Henry!” Margaret rose from her chair and went to the window to join him, laying one hand on his arm. “What has happened? Is it to do with the Charlotte and that Chinese official who rescued you?” She could think of nothing else that would torment him so.

After a second’s pause, his arm unbearably tense underneath her own light touch, Henry nodded.

“Commissioner Zexu rescued me and ruined me in one breath,” he said flatly. “He asks me to do the impossible. To betray –” He stopped, shaking his head, his face grey and haggard even as his blue eyes blazed with desperation.

“Betray,” Margaret repeated briskly. “It sounds like something from an opera! What on earth can you mean, Henry?” She would be sensible if her husband could not be.

“I mean it exactly.” Henry let out a long, weary sigh and rubbed his hands over his face before dropping them to his sides. “Commissioner Zexu has asked me to betray my fellow countrymen, my colleagues, by giving him the names of those in Boston who trade in opium.”

Margaret was silent, her mind spinning with this new information.

“Do you know such men?” she asked after a moment.

“I believe so.”

“Opium is a vile substance.”

“Indeed, the worst.”

She took a few steps away from him, biting her lip in thought.

“And yet men – colleagues, you said – trade in the stuff? I thought China had forbidden it.”

“And so they have, and rightly so, I should think. Their nation is being enslaved by the poppy. But merchants still smuggle it in, whether the ship is British or American.”

“And you must tell Zexu their names?”

“First I must find proof. He will not act without it.” He shook his head wearily. “It is exactly the kind of sly subterfuge I hate, Margaret. I am an honest man, with honest dealings. To ferret out information and then pass it on . . .”

Alan Spink

I am a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. I enjoy working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, I also write fiction and enjoy watching football and movies in my spare time. My one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.